Should state be in the business of helping pay for ferry engines?
I should say up front that the ferry companies run for generations by the Wronowski family are a credit to New London, a prominent part of the backbone of the city's port for decades.
It's the third leg of the city's bragging rights for being a multi-modal transportation center, with buses, ferries and trains.
Like the trains, the ferries also add a bit of romance to the city waterfront. It's reassuring to know that almost every hour there's a boat leaving that will take you to another port in another state. The passing ferries are as much a traditional part of the port scenery as the occasional submarine in transit.
We have no way of knowing how successful the private company may be. But I would venture a guess that running a marine bridge from New England to Long Island, with so much interstate trucking passing back and forth every day, must be lucrative. The fast ferries to Block Island also often seem packed to the gills.
So once again I am puzzled to see big grant money going to the ferry companies, a tradition on both the state and federal level.
The newest grant, announced Wednesday by Gov. Dannel Malloy, totals $971,720 — 40 percent of the cost of replacing the diesel engines in the Cecilia Ann, a used ferry that Block Island Express bought recently from an operator in New York. The ferry company's share is about $1.4 million.
It was part of a disbursement of $12.2 million for 10 clean air projects in the state, money from the state's share of the settlement of the federal enforcement case against Volkswagen for cheating emissions tests.
The ferry company was not the only private recipient but a lot of the grant money went to public agencies.
You don't have to go far in The Day's archives to find lots of grant money going to the New London ferry companies. Just this last summer, the U.S. Department of Transportation provided $503,250 for infrastructure improvements for Cross Sound Ferry, things like new car and passenger ramps, bulkheads and mooring dolphins.
Just last year Cross Sound Ferry was a recipient of a $800,000 federal Environmental Protection Agency grant to repower engines on two ferries.
The list of political donations also is long, when you ask the state elections search engine to provide the names of employees, officers and principals of the ferry company who donated to Connecticut campaigns. I will say the donations seem to flow pretty generously toward both Republicans and Democrats.
It's hard not to imagine a link between all those political donations and the many generous grants of public money, but then I'm an old cynic.
I find corporate welfare, especially in a financially challenged state pondering funding cuts for education and social services, unseemly, especially when it goes to successful businesses, like the contract-rich Electric Boat, that don't seem to be in any financial jeopardy.
Wouldn't the $971,720 spent on engines for a privately owned ferry be better spent replacing all of the City of New London's old diesel trucks, for instance? Why should politicians be picking winners and losers in the private sector for these sweepstakes and giveaways?
I reached out to Cross Sound Ferry this past week, because I was curious whether the Cecilia Ann will be registered in Connecticut and if sales tax was paid to the state when it was purchased. Most of the other ferries at the New London docks show New York, N.Y., as the homeport on the transom. I didn't hear back.
I also worry city politicians don't consider more creative ways the ferry business could help the city. In Narragansett, R.I., for example, every passenger getting off the Block Island ferry pays the town a 35-cent landing fee.
I have little hope that will ever happen in New London.
This is the opinion of David Collins.
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